Pakistan PM plays down confrontation, worries of instability

By Kamran Haider, Reuters

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani rejected on Sunday a suggestion his government was set on confronting President Pervez Musharraf, but newspapers said a destabilizing showdown was looming.

Gilani is a senior member of assassinated opposition leader Benazir Bhutto’s party which won the most seats in a February general election, which marked a return to civilian rule, in which the unpopular Musharraf’s allies were trounced.

The head of Bhutto’s party, her widower Asif Ali Zardari, on Saturday unveiled proposed constitutional changes that would strip Musharraf, a former army chief and staunch U.S. ally in its campaign against terrorism, of his powers.

A tussle for power pitting the ruling party and its allies against Musharraf would spell more instability in a nuclear-armed country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its history since its independence in 1947.

Gilani, asked by a reporter in the eastern city of Lahore about confrontation with Musharraf, said the constitutional changes represented the stand of Bhutto and her party, and there was no intention of confrontation.

“As far as the presidency is concerned, we respect the president, we’re talking about our manifesto, Benazir Bhutto’s manifesto. We’re talking about our program, we’re not talking about any confrontation,” Gilani said.

Zardari said on Saturday the amendments would remove the president’s power to dismiss a government and pass responsibility for appointing heads of the armed services and provincial governors to the prime minister.

Zardari’s party has been saying the constitutional amendments would be part of a package of reforms that would include the restoration of judges who Musharraf sacked last year.

Zardari’s People’s Party has to consult its three coalition allies over the 62 proposed amendments that could be put before parliament by the end of June.

Musharraf’s critics say his re-election by the outgoing parliament last October while still army chief was illegal and Zardari said the People’s Party never accepted Musharraf as a constitutional president.

The News newspaper said in an editorial Pakistan’s democracy was once again at a crossroads.

“The confrontation between democratic and anti democratic forces is now clear; the lines have been drawn,” it said.

“Many believe the coming few days and weeks will be critical ones. Both sides appear to have their pistols loaded and their holsters strapped on.” Referring to the possibility of military intervention, the News said while some people could already hear the “familiar but dreaded” sound of marching army boots, others insisted the military would not get involved in politics.

The latest bout of political uncertainty has taken its toll on investor confidence just as Pakistan is reeling from the impact of high oil and food prices, which contributed to a central bank decision to raise interest rates last Thursday. The Karachi Stock Exchange’s 100-share index ended Friday more than 17 percent below the life high struck on April 21.

The Nation newspaper also raised the prospect of a destabilizing face off.

“With President Musharraf and Mr. Zardari involved in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation, the possibility of an assault on the National Assembly is being widely discussed,” it said.